Letters to the Editor Summer 2003

Not Naughty by Nature?
Although I am not an evolutionary biologist, I have done extensive reading in the area. I have found the books of Stephen Jay Gould, including The Panda’s Thumb, The Flamingo’s Smile, and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory to be the best source of understanding the subtleties of evolutionary theory. Based on these readings, I have found a basic, but popular, misunderstanding of evolutionary theory in Robert Wright’s initial statement that “we were built by natural selection, which is all about self-preservation and self-interest” [“Darwin and the Buddha,” Spring 2003].

This comment, the essence of which permeates the rest of the interview, is only half true. Natural selection did build us, but biological evolution is all about survival of the species. All that it demands of individuals is that they procreate. Period. It therefore says nothing about the selfish or selfless behaviors of individuals of a species, or about their behavior at all. One may think, for instance, that monogamy is anti-Darwinist. But monogamy and polygamy are just behaviors, not fundamental attributes of our existence—and therefore not guaranteed survival or extinction. It is thus the same with selfless or selfish behavior. Evolution does not (and I venture to say cannot) put a priori limits on the extent of either. In our species, sentience pushes us into another realm: we have the ability to learn and unlearn at will selfish or selfless behavior.

It would take too long to go through each statement of the interview, but an answer to the most important one—does compassion make evolutionary sense?—can set the stage for readers to re-evaluate Mr. Wright’s subsequent statements. First, there is a caveat. Based on the true nature of evolution, the question of compassion making evolutionary sense implies a comparison between apples and oranges. Compassion is a behavior that we can accept or reject, while evolution is totally out of our control. Just because acceptance of compassion isn’t easy doesn’t mean that it has been hardwired into us by evolution. Indeed, the existence of utter selflessness and utter selfishness within our species means they are definitely not hardwired into us.

However, if Darwinian logic must be invoked, then it must be invoked exactly. Since the foundation of Darwinian logic is the survival of species, then it apparently makes sense that compassion or any other selfless act squares exactly with Darwinian logic. Lest anyone think that our choice of selfishness or selflessness will eventually wind up being genetically encoded, let us remind ourselves that giraffes didn’t get their long necks by willfully stretching up toward the leaves of trees. And, should their long necks suddenly inhibit adequate feeding, leading to ill health and lowered birthrates, they will become extinct (at least in the wild) no matter how well they get along with each other. The beauty of evolution is the subtle means by which it manifests itself (natural selection), yielding an incredible pervasiveness and diversity of species. It doesn’t condemn or bless us, it just allows us to be, for the time being. The yoke that Mr. Wright places on all of us in the name of evolution, namely that we must battle an inherently selfish nature, plainly and simply doesn’t exist.

—Greg Fleischman, Brookfield, Illinois

Robert Wright Responds:
Actually, Stephen Jay Gould’s emphasis on what biologists call “species-level selection” was very much a minority view. Most evolutionary biologists agree that organisms—including humans—aren’t designed by natural selection to do things for “the good of the species.” So we are not by nature infinitely compassionate and altruistic. However, it’s true—as I tried to stress in both the Tricycle interview and my book The Moral Animal—that people are genetically inclined toward compassion and altruism under certain circumstances. Indeed, one of the beautiful paradoxes of natural selection is how the Darwinian imperative of survival at the level of the gene can translate into self-sacrifice at the level of the organism. This is why people in all cultures routinely make sacrifices for family members and (on a more conditional basis) for friends. Still, it’s clear that we don’t extend altruism and compassion with equal ease to all members of our species. If you see a homeless man and realize he’s your long-lost brother, you’ll probably be filled with deep empathy, whereas normally a homeless man might elicit only mild sympathy—or might even seem like a mere annoyance, especially if you’ve had a bad day. This bias toward family members is a product of natural selection.

Of course, through philosophical reflection you may realize that you should be deeply compassionate toward people who aren’t kin or even friends, and following a spiritual discipline such as Buddhism may help you sustain that attitude. Still, the idea that there’s no innate natural bias—that we find it just as easy to care about other people’s offspring as our own, or that we feel just as guilty about neglecting a stranger as neglecting a friend—is inconsistent with both Darwinian theory and everyday observation. In the struggle for moral improvement, human nature gives us both great gifts and great handicaps. Acknowledging and fully comprehending the handicaps may make it easier to use the gifts wisely. 

The Amygda-lama
The interview with Daniel Goleman [“The Natural Scientist,” Spring 2003] about the growing scientific support for meditative practice as a way to tame destructive emotions and achieve sustained calm, compassion, and joy, was both fascinating and, in a scary moment in history, hopeful.

Yet I wonder why Goleman suggests waiting until children reach school age to teach them these skills. In the field of infant mental health, neurobiological and psychological research show that the brain pathways that bring the primitive amygdala-based emotional responses under the control of the prefrontal cortex are first laid down in the first two years of life. And they are quite literally constructed out of the social and caregiving interactions the baby has with its parents.

Helping parents find the inner and outer resources to be sensitively present for their infants may be our most powerful way to raise calmer, kinder, and happier children. Perhaps we should consider that it was neither an accident nor an error that the Buddha’s parents were so very proactive and so very generous.

—Marian Birch. D.M.H., Clinical Coordinator, Center on Infant Mental Health and Development, University of Washington

Daniel Goleman Responds:
Marian Birch has a wonderful point, one I’ve spoken to in my book Emotional Intelligence: In the emotional realm, a child’s primary tutors are her parents. Every day, children learn from their parents—or fail to learn—a multitude of lessons about self-awareness, handling their troubling emotions, empathy and caring, compassion and cooperation. When I advocate school programs for social and emotional learning, I am advocating making sure that every child receives these crucial life lessons.

As Buddhism has long validated my belief in science, I enjoyed your Spring 2003 issue, particularly Daniel Goleman’s interview, “Taming Destructive Emotions.” The laws of karma are a fine, logical explanation for neuroplasticity [the ability of the brain to generate new nerve cells and neural connections, thereby altering emotions, behavior, and perceptions]. Several weeks ago, I was kayaking the Loxahatchee River in southern Florida when I passed what appeared to be a dead dragonfly floating motionlessly on the low tide. About fifty yards upriver, I decided to circle back and have a closer look at one of my favorite insects. When I scooped it up with my paddle, its transparent wings began to move. I brought him into the boat and maneuvered him onto my ballcap. I knew there was a sloped beach access by my put-in, and to there I paddled. The dragonfly, a green darner, recovered quickly, but showed no inclination to take flight.

I beached the boat, coaxed him onto my finger, and scrambled up the bank. The dragonfly wouldn’t budge. He dug in with six strong legs that worked like pinchers. We remained in a stalemate for a few minutes before I could maneuver him onto a palmetto frond. He seemed fine. One last look, then I returned to my boat.

Later that day, I sat in my meditation room, eyes closed, following my breath. This is typical weekend afternoon practice. When I gradually reopened my eyes, I saw endless woodlands out my back window. The vision stayed steady. I was seeing pines and wetlands through the compound eye of a green darner dragonfly. I blinked and repeated the process, and the endless woods remained. Then, like a morning fog dissolving, the insect vision evaporated.

Temporary states and transient rapture are not the goals of practice. But I sure do enjoy a good epiphenomenon whenever there is one to be had. Thank you for the wonderful reading material.

—Kevin McLaughlin, Palm City, Florida

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